On a recent binge watching spree, I stumbled upon a talk by noted poet, author and thinker Javed Akhtar. During the course of his deeply engaging interview, Javed Saab explained to a captivated audience, the aesthetics of language. Starting with what constitutes a language, he proceeded to simplify it’s finer nuances. Amongst many pertinent points made, the most revelatory (to me) was about the composition of language. Supporting the explanation with interesting illustrations, Javed Saab explained that script is certainly not language. Words; which may be considered its building blocks are also not language by themselves. The essence of language is it’s syntax or grammar. One may use any script, may include ‘foreign’ words, but what determines the validity of a language is the syntax applied, that is how the words are arranged and combined to convey meaning.
This thought became the unlikely and unusual source of this culinary exercise. Could this principle be extended and applied to food? Amongst its many functions, food serves an extremely important purpose of communication and telling stories, and in doing so, it certainly plays the role of a language. Could a cuisine be viewed and examined as a language? Cooking techniques would then be considered a script and ingredients the words used. Merely applying a cooking technique does not determine the classification of a preparation under a particular cuisine. Similarly, simply using ingredients indigenous to a certain school of cooking would not make a dish representative of that cuisine unless it is examined with the other cooking variables involved.
These thoughts and questions are the backdrop against which this exploratory journey is set.
Unlike Pravaas: A Degustation last year, this is not a course-wise menu adhering to a common theme, but a collection of independent dishes.
Biscuit (Read Biskut) Amboda and Kadgi Chokko Sliders.
Biscuit Amboda, a popular snack from the Saraswat repertoire is essentially a fluffy, spongy Udad Dal (Split Black Gram) fritter. Soaked Dal is ground into a thick, smooth batter which is then flavoured with curry leaves and slivers of coconut before being deep fried, akin to a Medu Vada, albeit sans the hole, which of course is a hallmark of the latter. When served in it’s traditional avatar, the super crispy twisted ends of the misshapen Amboda adds to it’s moreish charm.
Biscuit Amboda acts as the ‘bun’ in these sliders. The patty has been fashioned out of Kadgi Chokko, another traditional Saraswat recipe which combines cooked, shredded raw jackfruit with select spices and coconut.
I placed a slice of grilled pineapple (keeping with the coastal/tropical origins of the recipe) and also, raw Jacfruit, like pork, shines in the presence of fruity flavours. The patty was topped with an Upkari-inspired slaw made with sweet carrots, peppery Mogri pods and mildly funky cabbage having a quintessential Saraswat base tempering (Phanna/Phodani) all tied together with a coconut cream dressing. Finally, a crown of chubby Amboda cheek held the slider together.
Koli Masala Deviled Crabs
I am partial to seafood and Crabs are one of my favourite things to cook and serve. I remembered Chef Sean Brock talking about the delicacy and demonstrating it with the Lee Brothers on David Chang’s ‘Mind of a Chef’. When I told Aammaa I was considering cooking this for Pravaas Part 2, she was thrilled. Not because I was attempting some exotic dish, but because I was going to recreate one of her childhood favourites. Apparently, my maternal grandmother would cook her Maharashtrain version of Deviled Crabs whenever she had to dazzle guests with a show stopper centre piece. I was blown away by her resourcefulness as a cook and that she managed to execute such tedious recipes over half a century ago from her tiny kitchen in Belgaum without having access to any modern gadgets and appliances. Not even a gas stove. The course suddenly assumed a very special place for me and became an ode to Jadiamma’s culinary genius and an homage to the ingenuity inherent in our food traditions and it’s practitioners.
I cleaned and steamed the mud crabs and then carefullt scooped out the meat. I then mix it with aromats and spices and herbs. Finally, I packed the crab meat mix back into cleaned crab shells and baked them in the oven till the crust turned light golden and the divinely delicious Deviled Crabs were ready to be served.
Literally translating to ‘Hole in the bone’, this Italian classic is a great way of using tough secondary cuts of meat in an intensely flavourful stew, braised low and slow till the meat is ‘ falling off the bone’ tender.
I changed the syntax of this rustic stew and suddenly it was speaking with a Kolhapuri twang. I used mutton shanks, a premium cut and braised it with a base of sautéed aromats and spices. A four hour braise turned the lamb buttery soft but still on the bone to retain the eye appeal while presenting.
Just like an Osso Bucco is served with creamy Polenta,I cooked a mellow Makyachi Usal. I accentuated the nutty sweetness of the white Desi corn by enriching the Usal with corn milk in this Maharastrain version of ‘Creamed Corn’. Not only does the corn milk help keep the dish dairy free, it also helps reinforce that sweetness which is essential against the spice infused, flavour-packed Kolhapuri Osso Bucco.
While traveling to Belgaum every year to celebrate Diwali with my grandparents and cousins, we would pass through Kolhapur and I have a strong visual memory of the stuble being burnt in the fields on either side of the road. The blazing fields against the dark background was a rather striking visual for a five year old and even though I haven’t witnessed it since many years, it is something I associate with Kolhapur till date.
To incorporate this aspect of my memories, I cold smoked the Usal by burning shredded sugarcane on embers and infused the Maharastrian Polenta with the sweet smoky aroma.
I served the shank on a bed of the Makyachi (Kanasachi) Usal and sprinkled a Thecha Gremolata as a garnish and a shower of toasted Bhuimoog added contrasting texture.
Khamang Kakdi Granita
Out of all the salads that are found in the Maharashtrian repertoire, Khamang Kakdi is by far my favourite. The fine balance of flavours achieved by combining basic, everyday Maharashtrian pantry staples is ethereal. The juxtaposition of complimentary flavours and contrasting textures is a sheer joy ride for the palate. Khamang Kakdi is invariably a part of every festive Saatvik meal. Every time some one would dice the cucumbers for the salad, Belgav Ajoba, my maternal grandfather, disapproving of the meticulous perfect dices would be quick to correct them in his trademark Belgavi swagger, “कोचायची गंsssss!” , he would point out, taking matters into his own hands and demonstrating the technique on the the ‘Vili’. Every time Khamang Kakdi is made, we revisit this endearing memory and I am so glad it serendipitously became a part of Pravaas Part 2.
I made a lightly sweetened Cucumber Granita. Coconut Cream ‘Caviar’ added richness. Dainty coriander flowers lended fresh herbaceous notes besides being a pretty garnish. I made a lacey peanut tuile to add texture and the quintessential nuttiness that is central to Khamang Kakdi. Crunchy black sea salt stood out as the seasoning for this refreshing palate cleanser.
I wanted to reimagine the French classic and turn it on its head to get a purely Maharashtrian version of it. The form was gonna be novel for our mother cuisine and hence the flavours had to be familiar and comforting.
I chose the flavours of Konkan for this course. Besides the sun, sand and sea the only thing omnipresent across the coast is Komdi-Vade. A rustic, flavourful chicken ‘curry’ is served with freid Puri like Vade made from an earthy flour mix of roasted lentils and select spices.
I made a pastry shell from the Vade dough and blind baked it till light golden. I then shredded the chicken from a classic Saguti and mixed it with the ‘curry/gravy’. I whisked in a tiny bit of egg white, just enough to help the mixture set into a delicate flan but not interfere with the taste. I then poured the savoury ‘custard’ mix into the quiche shell and baked it till the flan was just set.
I served individual slices of the Kombdi-Vade Quiche topped with a basic salad like garnish of radish and mint along with a wedge of lime.
Shrikhand Cannoli, Phanas Poli and Jambhul Reduction
The Italian dessert Cannoli use a deep fried hollow ‘tubes’ which are typically filled with sweetened Ricotta with candied fruits (Tutti Frutti) added for flavour, colour and texture.
Our Shrikhand is the perfect replacement for sweetened Ricotta and Maharashtrian to the core. The challenge was in making the Cannoli Maharastrian. I had sun-dried a batch of Jackfruit seeds and milled it into flour. The stunning flavour profile with it’s nutty, almost cocoa like notes had left me smitten. I made the Cannoli out of the Atalya (Jackfruit Seeds) Flour. Unlike the traditonal fried ones, I baked these to keep them light. Sprinkled rose petals added a fragrant floral touch. I mixed in homemade Phanas Poli Confetti into the Shrikhand with loads of Charoli before piping it into the Cannolo.
I had got some Jambhul concentrate from a family friend’s farm in the Konkan. I further reduced it to a syrup and served the sweet, tart reduction along side the Cannolo.
This second leg of the journey (Pravaas) gave fascinating insights into our Mother cuisine. Cuisine can certainly be interpreted as a language. And like any language that wishes to be alive and vibrant it has to assimilate what is new. Innovations which have their origins deeply rooted in time tested traditions only enhance the ability to communicate.
Swapneel Prabhu is an expert in Konkani “Amchi” cuisine, and is academically interested in cooking methodology and indigenous produce. His expertise showcases his keen understanding of both facets, which allow him to blend the new with the old seamlessly.